Uchi Bears Fruit

By Caroline Hatchett | Briana Balducci | Will Blunt | Caroline Hatchett


Caroline Hatchett
Briana Balducci | Will Blunt | Caroline Hatchett

“It tastes like summertime.” That’s how Yoshi Okai described a clean, bold, floral bowl of Japanese flounder, sudachi, Texas blueberry, and Mexican marigold mint. The dish also tasted resonantly, clearly of Uchi.

Tyson Cole’s Uchi will celebrate its 15th birthday in May 2018, and his influence runs deep in Austin. Okai, chef of Austin’s rock-and-roll omakase counter, Otoko nước chấm , spent seven years working with Cole. Okai’s style has evolved, but any dish that highlights peak-season Texas fruit and raw fish owes its character to Cole’s progressive Japanese cooking.

“It all came out of making sushi for 12 years before Uchi. With Japanese chefs, the whole idea is that everything is pristine. Don’t add anything to it. But I wanted to make it taste better,” says Cole, who began to season fish with spices, oils, and vinegars. “Heresy.”

As Uchi’s guests clamored for new combinations, Cole did R&D with fruit and raw fish preparations. “A lot of times it wasn’t great. But when we hit it—it’s like writing or playing music—we had these epiphanies,” he says. Watermelon, tuna, and nước chấm was an early breakthrough. “I couldn’t believe how good it was.”

Over time, Cole and crew dialed in their knife work and developed the “Uchi cut” to maximize texture and achieve the perfect bite of fruit and fish. Cole likens it to fruit sashimi. “I’m trying to create utmost respect for ingredients. And we thought, ‘To achieve the best one bite, how should we cut the fruit?” The Uchi cut isn’t a brunoise or a slice or dice; it renders a relatively uniform size of fruit in a random shape. “Only my staff would know.”

That staff is now dispersed across the city. As its former pastry chef and director of operations, Rising Stars alum Philip Speer is central to Uchi’s culinary identity. In 2017, he opened diner-inspired Bonhomie with Jared Fergeson, another Uchi alum, leading the savory kitchen. In addition to potato rosti, cheeseburgers, and French onion soup, there’s one clear homage to Uchi on the menu: a riotous bowl of raw salmon, cantaloupe, Thai basil, blood orange, smoked trout roe, and tomato.

Texas fruit with fish is now as much as an Austin trademark as it is Cole’s. At Pitchfork Pretty, Max Snyder serves salmon crudo with watermelon, aloe vera, citrus, and fish sauce. Melissa Moss makes an amberjack-peach ceviche with cucumbers, chiles, and nixtimal almonds at Lenoir. Cole’s biggest impact on Austin, though, has been nurturing talent, and ultimately building the foundation of the city’s restaurant industry.

Thai Changthong’s restaurant, Thai Kun, was born from the homey staff meals he made as a line cook at Uchi. “The first day I had to cook, I was so nervous. I didn’t know anything except for what my mom cooked,” says Changthong. After that one meal, the kitchen crew was hooked. “It was spicy like hell, but they were waiting for it.” Now partnered with fellow Uchi alum, Paul Qui, Changthong makes funky grandma-style Thai cuisine that’s as exhilarating as it is melt-your-face-off hot. Having come into his own as a chef, there are still nods to Uchi on the menu: larb, traditionally made with cooked meat and fish, is served with hunks of raw salmon and sweet grape tomatoes.

Changthong and the long list of Uchi alumni benefited from the constant motion and excitement intrinsic to Uchi’s menu, half of which remains the same while the other half changes daily. With new product coming through the back door every day, Cole and his team built a hands-on structure for cooks to experiment. “If you work here, you get addicted to playing with food and making new things. Our chefs work on specials with cooks, and it’s a process they really buy into,” says Cole. “They work
here for six months, a year, or two years, and they have an ‘aha’ moment. They get a special on the menu, and they’re so proud. That’s the tipping point. I love that—when they love cooking and making Japanese food as much as I do.”

Cole took that structure and passion to Houston, Dallas, and soon Denver. His Hai Hospitality group is also partnering with barbecue savant Aaron Franklin to open Loro, an Uchi-style smokehouse with progressive sauces and sides. Most likely, Texas-meets-Japan-style crudos won’t be the stars of the menu at Loro, but we’d bet on its dishwashers, line cooks, and sous as future food innovators and leaders in Austin.

“We really make a point of striving for excellence. I want to be the best—to try to get out there and push boundaries—and that attitude is pervasive in our culture. People who worked for us still carry that torch. That’s a legacy.” 

Get the recipes for Thai Changthong's Larb Salmon Crudo and Chef Michael Castillo's King Crab and Watermelon Nước Chấm

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